In 2020, my cat passed away after what we hope was an enjoyable nineteen years with us. We all know 2020 was a bad year; this made it personally one of the worst in recent memory. I thought I had come to terms with his loss over the past two years, but about five minutes into Stray, I knew that wasn’t the case. As I maneuvered my little orange feline over and around pipes and greenery after its three friends, pain and sadness began to surface. I wished so badly that my cat was still around; the feelings almost distracted me from the game itself. The events following the game’s introduction didn’t help, and I seriously thought that I wouldn’t be able to continue. Nevertheless, I fought through the sobs and kept going. I’d like to think that my cat would be proud that I didn’t quit.
Since seeing Stray’s first trailer, it became the “kitty with a backpack” game in my head. That phrase does well to describe the game’s protagonist, but it hardly encompasses the game. Without spoilers, Stray presents the story of a cat that ends up stuck in a strange, human-less city with post-apocalyptic vibes that’s populated by robots. The player, as the world’s cutest-ever video game cat, progresses through the city, both helping and being helped by various robots. There are several goals to reach, secrets to uncover, trophies to gather, and plenty of friends to make along the way.
At its heart, Stray is an exploration-puzzle game. There’s no combat, however, the cat can find itself in “combat situations,” which require good eyes, quick reflexes, and a decent bit of stealth (just like a cat, go figure!). There are enemies in the game, and the cat has little defense, so avoiding/running away from problems is usually the way to go. When I wasn’t doing all I could to keep kitty safe, I was knee-deep in some great puzzles. The puzzles in the game aren’t complicated, but they prove interesting enough and, in some cases, a little challenging. Once the kitty was in the city, an interesting item-trading scenario kicked off that invited exploration. It was a nice touch and provided ways to meet a number of the city’s residents.
Speaking of meeting and greeting, the cat is eventually joined by a companion that serves as an information-giver and a guide; or, in my case, thing to talk to when I forgot what it was I needed to do. The companion mechanic works extremely well, and it certainly helps make traveling feel less lonely. The reasons for the companion, and the robots’ plight is slowly revealed throughout the course of the game, and I was truly surprised by just how deep the story went. Just when I thought things might be over, I discovered the kitty was simply rounding another astonished corner in an amazing yet melancholy world. When the end of the game hit, it felt natural. It also appeared as if something of an opening might have been left for a sequel, that, or the game left a few loose threads dangling just because. I’m not very good at reading into those sorts of things.
While I finished Stray, I didn’t complete everything the game offered, so I plan to replay it again in the near future. Or maybe a little farther out. The game really did make me miss my cat. BlueTwelve Studio nailed the protagonist—the kitty with a backpack. Everything from its movement, reactions, and features excellently mimicked a real-life cat. Sure, there were moments when it was very clear I was navigating a video game world with a video game cat—I did encounter occasional glitches, and one time had to restart my game because of them—but I was always more than willing to suspend my disbelief in favor of the feisty feline. I mean, they gave players a meow button. A meow button! Just to meow whenever and wherever, like a cat! Little touches like that in a world unlike any other make Stray feel both familiar and fantastic. It’s a compelling game with an unwavering commitment to its story, environment, and characters. Stray is a game that makes you believe in the magic of video games, and cats, and cats in video games. Cat-lover or not, that’s a very powerful combination.
All images, included lede, were captured by author during PS5 gameplay of Stray (© BlueTwelve Studio, Annapurna Interactive).